The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.

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Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!

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And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.

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During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!

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All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

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Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.

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Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.

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Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.

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And it is.

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The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.

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As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.

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“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

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Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.

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If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.

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If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Rear Window Point of View

Some stories grab you by the throat, plunge you in from the get-go, and never let up, sprinting frenetically to the finish line at a speed so blistering your head spins as you race along for the ride.  An old-school action movie, perhaps, or a thriller that scarcely pauses to catch its breath . . .

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window, based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had to Be Murder,” is definitely not such a story.

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From the opening sequence where we view, along with main character L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by James Stewart), the apartment complex across the street, the film is decidedly unrushed.

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It takes its time, the plot unfolding slowly, allowing the viewer to ease into the story line and characters, the cinematic equivalent of a leisurely stroll along a country lane.  This is not to suggest that Rear Window is dull.  Far from it.  It is widely regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished movies, and has long been a personal favorite of mine.

The story centers around Jefferies, confined to a wheelchair, his left leg broken and in a cast, suffered while photographing an auto race accident.

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He has been whiling away the time in his small New York City apartment, with little to do except spy on his neighbors across the way.  For a man of action like Jefferies, whose job routinely takes him to some of the world’s most remote and dangerous locales, the inactivity is like a slow, torturous death sentence.

We meet his neighbors, right along with him.  The entire film is shown from Jefferies’ perspective.  When we see his neighbors, we see only what he sees.  We are never actually in their apartments.  We, like Jefferies, are spying, voyeurs, peering in through back windows at the private rituals and arguments and parties of the Other.

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From this point of view, we meet a dancer whom Jefferies calls Miss Torso, who is continually prancing around her room in a bikini and other various states of undress.  She practices her dance steps in full view of Jefferies, who eagerly takes in the view.

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We meet a single woman Jefferies nicknames Miss Lonelyheart.  One evening we spy her entertaining an imaginary guest at her table, before breaking down in tears.  We, like Jefferies, question whether or not we should be witnessing such private acts.  But we do, and we are.

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And we also meet a bickering married couple, the Thorwalds.  The husband is a salesman, the wife is unwell, spending her days in bed.  Jefferies can’t help but notice their quarrels.  Their flat is just across from his.

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While me meet the neighbors, we also enter into Jefferies’ personal life.  He has problems of his own, apart from the broken leg.  His girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite, wants to get married.

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Jefferies tells her it wouldn’t be a good idea.  He doesn’t want to settle into a comfortable city life taking photos at her fashion events.  And he doesn’t believe she is cut out to be the wife of a traveling photographer who spends much of his time in rustic, back-country places.  He tells her it’s not the life for her–neither of them would be happy in the other’s world.

One night, after an argument with Lisa about this very issue, Jefferies spies the Thorwalds in the apartment across the way having another of their fights.  Later, after midnight, there is a scream and a crash and a single cry of, “Don’t!” and then all is quiet.  Jefferies observes Thorwald leave the apartment three times during the night, each time carrying his salesman’s case.  Something seems amiss.  As the days pass, Jefferies, collecting various clues as he continues to keep an ever-present eye on Thorwald, believes that the salesman has murdered his wife.

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But even here, the film takes its time.  We never leave Jefferies’ apartment.  We learn what he learns, at the same pace he does.   The movie continues to build in momentum, slowly, allowing us to taste every nuance, pause at every twist and turn of the plot.  Along the way, we further delve into the lives of Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart, along with other neighbors.  The time of year, midsummer, with an oppressive heat wave, only serves to emphasize the unhurried pace of the plot.  Everyone is hot, the air is thick with humidity, muggy like soup.  Nothing will be rushed.

There is a method to the madness, of course.  Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, is taking his viewers by the hand, and leading them, gently, softly, up a winding mountain back road.  We have to solve the mystery right along with the protagonist, and while we do, we get to know him, his personality, his insecurities, his faults, and his idiosyncracies, right along with those of his neighbors’.  It is a rich, layered story, strangely comfortable in spite of the potential horror taking place across the way.  It makes us want to settle in, stay for a while, and lose ourselves in its world.

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It also makes the ending, a confrontation between Thorwald and Jefferies, stand out in bold relief to the rest of the film.  Everything has been leading up to this–the crash of the cymbals after the slow, melodic dance.  The bold, brutal display of violence after two hours of merely hinting at it.  It is a climax earnestly won, an eruption of suspense perfectly timed.

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It is also a very good reminder.

Sometimes, when in the process of writing a novel, or even a shorter work, it is easy to fall into the finishing-too-quickly trap.  If you’re in chapter 21, and you have big plans for chapter 22, the natural temptation is to cut that last scene in chapter 21 just a little short, the eagerness, anticipation, and excitement over the big chapter to come simply too much to resist.  I know I fell into this mind-set at times during the writing of The Eye-Dancers.

While every chapter in a novel is important, there are, naturally, certain chapters that stand out as truly crucial, the linchpins upon which everything else rests.  When I was nearing a “linchpin” chapter, I often had to remind myself to slow down, and give the present chapter the attention it deserved.  If I rushed the current chapter, then the impact of the “big” chapter that followed would be minimized due to the faults and sloppiness of the chapter that preceded it.  In such moments, when the temptation to rush was at its strongest, I would think of old L.B. Jefferies in his wheelchair, watching, waiting, slow, slow . . . and I would take a deep breath, and carry on, careful not to race through.

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And while the major chapters, the big fight scenes, the incredible time warps all serve as the “wow”scenes in any story, it is the little chapters, the quiet sequences that often move us and help us to relate to the story and the characters who populate it.  A short conversation between friends.  An inside joke between a husband and wife.  A moment of introspection as your main character relaxes on the sofa, watching an old rerun and sipping tea.  Scenes like this add nuance, substance, and texture to the story.  They are the peeks behind the curtain, the herbs and spices that bring out the rich, hearty flavor beneath the surface.  They are the hidden gems at the bottom of the pile, the rare finds at the back of the store.

And they offer us, in their shy, softspoken manner, The Rear Window point of view.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Very (Corny) Christmas

I admit it.  I enjoy corny things.  The kinds of things that make you shake your head, mutter under your breath, and yet . . . and yet . . . they just have a certain charm to them you can’t resist.

Take It’s A Wonderful Life.  It’s corny, sure it is.  But it’s also my all-time favorite movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy hard-edged, gritty drama just as much as the next guy.  But if I want something to put me in a good mood, I’ll pull out an old comic book, tune it to The Honeymooners, or watch Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in this timeless holiday classic.

In fact, in The Eye-Dancers, I did give a tip of the author’s cap to It’s A Wonderful Life.  In the movie, the small town where the action takes place is called Bedford Falls.  In The Eye-Dancers, the story begins in Bedford–without the “Falls”!  Much of The Eye-Dancers takes place in the variant town of Colbyville, but it’s definitely no accident that it begins in Bedford.

I’ve seen It’s A Wonderful Life  many times, yet I still choke up at the end.  Yes, I shake my head.  Yes, I tell myself not to be such a sap.  But then Jimmy Stewart starts singing “Auld Lang Syne” and the bell rings and Clarence gets his wings . . .

Maybe I’ll get a chance to watch some of it again this week.  And it’ll get to me.  It always does.

Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday!

–Mike

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